Airline Customer Advocate: Got a problem with your airline? Don't expect much help

Got a beef with your airline? Flight cancellations, delays, problems using flight vouchers or getting refunds, baggage problems – there's a long queue of unhappy fliers right now.

If you're not getting satisfaction you might turn to the Airline Customer Advocate.

Borrowing from its website, "The Airline Customer Advocate (ACA) provides a free and independent service to eligible (sic) customers of major Australian airlines by facilitating the resolution of current unresolved complaints about airline services."

However, the ACA is no white knight coming to joust with an airline on your behalf.

How the ACA came to be

In December 2009, the government published a National Aviation Policy White Paper under the auspices of Anthony Albanese, at the time the Rudd Government's Minster for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government.

A comprehensive policy statement for the future of Australia's aviation industry, the white paper also highlighted the need to safeguard the interests of consumers. While noting that "the Government is reluctant to burden industry with further regulations in this area," the government waved a stick, saying it "will monitor the industries (sic) efforts to develop proposals to better handle consumer complaints over the coming year, and will consider a more interventionist approach should this become necessary."

Australia's airlines smelled trouble. Rather than submitting themselves to independent oversight they decided to establish their own complaints authority and on July 1, 2012, the ACA was born, founded by and funded by the airlines.

The function of the ACA

According to the ACA's website, "The ACA does not have independent power to make decisions that affect the participating airline's response to your complaint. However, the airlines are bound by their commitment to respond within the required timeframe to all complaints referred to them by the ACA." The airlines concerned are Qantas, Virgin Australia, Rex and Jetstar.

If you want to complain to the ACA, the words "eligible complaint" are key. For a complaint to be eligible, it must first be submitted to one of the airlines within the ACA's umbrella. Your complaint must also have followed the complaints process outlined in the relevant airline's customer charter. You must also allow sufficient time for the airline to respond. If you consider the response to be inadequate you need to ask for a review and await a final determination, and that's a gotcha! moment right there.

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After problems using his Qantas airfare credit, and six calls to Qantas with wait times up to 3½ hours, Scott, who doesn't want his last name used, submitted a complaint to Qantas. When the airline failed to respond he complained to the ACA. However, because he'd heard nothing from Qantas, his complaint to the ACA was ruled ineligible.

An email to Scott from a spokesperson at the Airline Customer Advocate stated "According to Qantas records, you have not undergone the full complaints process with Qantas… The ACA case will be closed and cannot be re-opened."

Qantas is struggling in a number of areas. Too few baggage handlers, far too few staff in its call centres, and it's not too surprising that a complaint to the airline might join a long queue. And without a response from the airline, any complaint to the ACA is null and void.

Nothing to see here

According to the ACA's annual report for 2021, the ACA received 599 eligible complaints out of 24,877,400 individual passenger flights that year across its four participating airlines. That equates to one eligible complaint for every 40,000 passenger flights.

Complaints to Qantas regarding a flight delay or cancellation amounted to fewer than one per 200,000 passengers carried. Jetstar did even better – about half that number. Complaints about Virgin Australia regarding fees and charges? Fewer than one per two million passengers.

According to the report, 32 per cent agreed that their complaint was managed in a timely way and 35 per cent agreed that the ACA was independent in all its interactions.

By those measures, we're all happy campers. The airlines are doing a fantastic job, complainants are about as scarce as ticks on a whale. The Australian Government, Fair Trading NSW, Legal Aid for Tasmanians and naturally enough the airlines themselves all endorse the ACA for anyone with an airline complaint.

No doubt those figures bring a warm glow to the airlines, but the thought that they represent an accurate picture of how satisfied Australian fliers are with our airlines is farcical. No complainant posting to Google reviews gives the ACA more than one star out of a possible five. CHOICE awarded the ACA one of its not-so-coveted Shonky awards in 2021.

"You might as well put your complaint in a shredder than waste your time with the Airline Customer Advocate." said CHOICE consumer rights expert Alison Elliott.

"This is an advocate that doesn't advocate. It's window dressing to help the airline industry pretend it cares about managing complaints. In reality, it can't investigate your complaint, it can't make an independent decision and it has no power to make airlines do anything."

The wider problem

This brings up a systemic problem and that is the ineffectual consumer protection for Australia's air travellers. Flight cancelled? That's your problem, and you can bear whatever cost the delay might involve. Baggage delayed? You'll just have to buy yourself a new wardrobe while we fix that. Need to call us? Hang on the phone while we sort that out, and wait, and wait.

The world's best model for airline industry consumer protection is the EU. Under EU Regulation 261 for example, passengers whose flight arrives at its destination three hours or more after scheduled arrival time may be entitled to compensation of between €250 and €600 per person. Passengers are also entitled to food and hotel accommodation if necessary during the delay.

That's the kind of regulation that makes an airline sit up and pay attention. On April 5, 2022, during the Easter chaos, British Airways cancelled more than 100 flights originating from Heathrow. Post-Brexit, BA is no longer governed by EU legislation except when operating from an EU airport. If the UK was still within the EU, BA would have moved heaven before cancelling flights on that scale.

The process for resolving complaints against airlines is rigged from the start. Our government has been nonchalant in regard to protecting consumers from the worst practices of the airline industry, and by shuffling their complaint resolution process to the ACA, the airlines have been allowed to get away with too much for too long. It's time our airlines were held to account with effective consumer protection legislation, not a glove puppet of their own making.

See also: Not just Australia: Why there's chaos at airports around the world

See also: Alan Joyce is right: Passengers aren't 'match fit' for flying

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